DECEMBER 2023, SHORT STORY, 2600 WORDS
It is the stillness of peace; it is the stillness of desolation; it is the quiet of rest; it is the quiet of unutterable grief. We drift with the languid air above the face of Agonis Creek and gaze at our tremulous reflections. In the quiet of grief, in the quiet of rest, in the stillness of desolation, in the stillness of peace, we are here. We are often here. It is our haunt.
The iridescence is still on the face of the creek. The color bands tremble in a waltz on the water, this way and that, rainbows amorphous and adrift, following the direction of the breeze. Both the iridescence and the blackness of the water wring out of us the sad memories of the time when a blanket of oil clung onto the face of every river and creek, lay upon every inch of land, daubed every root and trunk. And fish lay dead or dying in their thousands, the dying ones gasping for air through oil-soaked gills that kept lifting with effort and collapsing. And the land could no longer breathe—it lay there, gasping, too, black bubbles like eyes bulging and collapsing, till asphyxiated. We did not like the blackness that seeped and seeped and blanketed everywhere. But it was not for us to mop it all up and stem the leak. We knew those whose responsibility it was. Their tardiness surprised us. We watched them as within walls of steel and glass they ticked from denial to debate, back and forth, round and round, circumnavigating the truth. It was not for us to steer them. A helmsperson steers a ship—but who steers the helmsperson? That is the question. Many empty promises and deferred hopes later, some people in overalls and wellies appeared and sprayed a substance on a few of the creeks. And then a few lorries arrived and emptied sand over an area of land. And that was it. Too little, too late. Once you violate the earth, nothing is ever the same, nor do things go back to how they were. What is past is past, unchangeable. The age of innocence is drowned—in a sea of oil.
Innocence. The burnt-out ruins of school buildings in the area remind us of the children that used to school in them. After the assembly one morning, the queue of schoolchildren snaked up to the water taps. The children were to wash their hands—every morning would now be Handwashing Morning, the headteacher had announced during the assembly. Each child smelled their hands afterwards. None said a thing until one said to a teacher, Ma, but my hands smell of oil. Other children then found their voices and chorused the complaint. The teacher’s response was terse: Go and wash them again.
We remember when the taps came. Everyone here used to fetch water from streams—even after the water was no longer just water, but water cheek by jowl with, and at war with, oil. Tap water did not arrive until after people had marched in the tar-soiled streets and shouted into the soot-laden air, until after some of them had fallen on their faces dead or wounded onto the oil-blackened earth. We stared at one another and shook our heads. It surprised us, unarmed people having to march—and soldiers shooting at them—for such an essential thing as clean water. Soldiers—the way they sometimes behave surprises us. It seems that all that they understand is “Go!” They don’t understand “Come!” Once they start, they rat-tat-tat their way through, they can’t stop. They didn’t stop that day. They blockaded the area and then kept cutting lives short, and then through their bloodied chops, they barked the claim that what had happened was an intertribal skirmish in which a warring party had dressed up in faux army uniforms. The survivors grabbed the batons from the fallen and hit the streets again and again and it could no longer be denied that bullets would not stop the bruit.
The people had a leader, one who led from outside the walls of steel and glass, who led without a ring of bodyguards, who led unarmed. A disused oil drum was his pulpit, and his people stood around him, they had no need for pews. From his perch on the drum, he spouted fire and brimstone, punctuating his cadences with punches into the air. He spoke of the perils of the lustrous poison dancing on the surface of water bodies and killing fish. He spoke of the blackness that blanketed the landscape and clung to crops—he said crops also did breathe, like humans, except that what humans breathed out was what plants breathed in and vice versa, and that that was necessary for the balance of life, and that the nostrils through which plants breathed were invisible to the naked eye but present, and that oil coated those nostrils and became poison in the veins of the plants, which was why plants died. He spoke of the air, of how the flares from the barrels that towered heavenwards in irreverent, even blasphemous, accusation poisoned the air and were the cause of the breathing problems people had been experiencing. He warned that some catastrophe might engulf the land if people did not take action. We noticed something else that he and his people could not. The skies were a sheet of nylon spread over the flares, and the tongues of fire were eating away at the sheet, leaving huge holes in it—gaps that let more-than-usual sunshine through and that, we wondered, might one day let the sun itself through. What if the sun fell to the earth? There would be no child kicking it around, wondering what kind of football this was, this ball that glowed, different from what they played on the pitch at school. We had been watching these happenings. It was not for us to interrupt them. Someone had to speak up, to warn against them. We were glad that someone was doing that.
But not everyone was glad. People were learning these astonishing things and waking up, and this awakening was an itch on the backs of the glass-and-steel leaders. The soldiers were there to scratch the itch. They came for the leader one day: he was in the middle, not of a speech, but of a meal, when they came for him. They should not have done that. It was not courage: it was cowardice. They did not even let him finish his food, nor did they let him wash his hands. They seized his hands and rubbed them on his face. He cried out as the pepper got into his eyes. We knew it was the beginning of sorrows.
The Catastrophe: billows of black smoke hurtling radially outwards across the area, with a burst of sun-bright fire at the center fanning out in the same pattern. It surprised us, like lightning. It all started with a spark. Some men had been cooking oil in a cauldron in the middle of the forest as though it was jollof rice for a party. The oil did not catch fire then. The men, blackened and sweaty, punctuated their labors with grins and commendations— “Well done, well done!” The distillates streamed from a pipe and into a queue of buckets and drums. One of the men carried a metal bucket full of kerosene and was going to pass it on to a woman holding a large plastic funnel and behind whom stood an array of jerrycans. His hands were slick with oil, and the bucket slipped out of his grasp and hit a stone. We saw the spark and the petrol sloshing out of the bucket and onto the spark and onto the man. The fire whooshed and roared, a lion on its hind legs. The refiners were consumed. For over a week, the fire burned and burned. Oil burning on water, fire in spite of water. Cinders everywhere; what they once were, it was hard to tell. Hard to tell what was once a body from what was once a tree, just by looking at them both. Fire is a glutton. If you saw the scene, you had to believe that the world might well end in an inferno.
Two fish are swimming under the iridescent surface of Agonis Creek. Tilapia fish, perhaps. They are rather small; not fingerlings, yet not quite full-figured adult tilapia. Will they still grow, or have they stopped growing? It has been a long time since we last saw any big fish. We remember when there were big fish. The whole community was proud of its fish. Fish fed people here to their fill; fishing built houses for them, sent their children to school, built clubs and places of worship for them, grew their cooperative societies. But all those successes put together are a small cloud far away on history’s horizon now.
The fish swim away from us. Are they siblings or a couple? Will they procreate at all? We don’t see as many fish as we once did. Oil is powerful like that; there is nothing it cannot do.
A canoe approaches. We pull away from the creek and into the boneyard of mangroves that borders it—into the oil-blackened skeletons of dead breathing roots. The men aboard the canoe paddle past us. We have seen them before: they are fishermen. We follow them to the point where they will fish. They are there for hours on end, casting and drawing, casting and drawing. Their labor is elephantine, but their reward is the size of an ant’s meal. One of them cuts open a tilapia and sniffs its insides. He wrinkles his nose. He is young, in his teens. We know him; he was a toddler at the time of the Catastrophe. He looks at his father, who responds by pulling down the corners of his mouth and shrugging his shoulders. We know: there is no escaping it. Nowhere is pristine here. The poison is everywhere. The teenager’s eyes are shiny with tears.
These fishermen are some of the survivors of that father of all fires. Most of the survivors left, and that with nothing but the clothes on their backs. It was not for us to stop them. One cannot sleep on in a burning house.
Some of the young men who left did so by cramming themselves into a boat they called HMS Japa. One of the men traced on a map the route of their journey with eye and finger, and we could tell that the band of men was going far, far away. He lifted up his face and held the map aloft and cried, This map will be our guide on this voyage to what might be our deaths, and if death be the case, then, like men, let us die having looked death in the eye. But if living be the case, then we will have gained the chance to start to live all over again. It surprised us, the fellow’s speech, it ran through us as currents of lightning. In that posture, face uptilted, map aloft, the fellow was a mast himself, the map in his clutch a sail.
But be it at home or abroad, all is bittersweet. And the elements care nothing for bravery, nor do they heed cries for quarter. They feel nothing. They know nobody, and so can neither hate nor love. Even when wind and wave toss vessels this way and that, with the voyagers lurching backward, forward, sideways, reeling with sickness, even when wind and wave flip vessels over, like a plate of food knocked out of a child’s hands, they are just being wind and wave. We did not follow the young men on their voyage. We hoped against hope that the elements would be asleep all through the passage. We respect the elements. We wish people would respect them, too, study their temperaments, steer clear when water and air flare into a storm.
Only a few people—including the fishermen—remained after the fire and the exodus. They huddled together one night and, silhouetted by the light of the last embers, swore never to leave: this was their ancestral land, they declared. They were made from it. It sustained them. Now it was sick and broken. But it would be healed. It was dead. But it would resurrect. It was ancient. But it remained present. Whatever kept it in place would revive it. And as for them, their bodies would revolt if they were to be buried anywhere else. They would rather be buried in this failed part of the earth. They would rather give themselves back to the place from which they came. It was a wonder, the devotion of these people.
We miss the leavers. We miss the schoolchildren. We miss their laughs, the cheerfulness with which they greet the poisoners, both the ones foreign to them and the ones among them. We miss the glow of aspiration in the eyes of the schoolchildren, how with chalk they wrote mathematical expressions and snippets from books on walls and smeared the grey powder on one another’s faces and giggled and poked at one another’s ribs or pushed and shoved and fought. We miss the people, young women and men alike, who marched time and again. We miss their leader, the rare man who did not need steel and glass and guards to be a leader, the man whose people neither saw nor heard from again. We miss the songs of the aged: the songs of yesteryears, the years before the discovery of oil, the songs of long-lost riches, of what could have been: music riding on the wings of night. The only people we do not miss are those who laid the pipes.
Wait. Something almost beyond words is happening. Something is happening to the oil on the water, to the oil globules underwater. A small group of things, each one so small, a million of them is probably the size of a pebble, has latched onto one oil globule. This small group of things, webbed together by slimy-looking threads, had sloughed off another group, a larger group. And this small group of cylindrical shapes is growing—each shape is growing and then dividing into two. Two, four, eight… The small group has become a large group, and a chunk of it sloughs off and floats up to the surface, where it then attaches itself to an oil film. We don’t even feel the passing of time. We keep watching, and then we observe this: the group has eaten a hole in the film. There must be some kind of life in these things. What are they? Have they always been here?
Some other things are happening, too—familiar things this time. Chirpings and croaks are returning to the evenings. Crickets in the reeds; toads in the rushes—actors staging a comeback in and around Agonis Creek. Maybe these animals never left this place. Life is stubborn. It never entirely leaves a ghostland. Evening is falling, and life-sounds are rising.
We miss the earth we are accustomed to.
John Lighthouse is a student and a Perry Morgan Fellow in the Creative Writing MFA program at Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA. He is the winner of the program’s 2022 Jerri Dickseski Fiction Prize (Graduate Division). His fiction proposal was longlisted for the Inaugural Writers’ Workshop (2022) offered by the Johannesburg Institute of Advanced Study (JIAS). His short story, “Yohanna K’s White Christmas,” was a finalist in the Brittle Paper Stories Competition (2021).